Weekend with Isaiah Zagar

Many years ago (actually, almost 20 years ago!) I was in Philadelphia for the first time.  Walking along South Street I passed an abandoned lot that had been decorated with broken bottles, bicycle tires and many shimmering mirrors.  The wall of the adjoining building was covered with mosaic and a wall had been built out of recycled materials.  It was strange and beautiful and a little bit disarming.  I had to find out who had done it!  I asked some people who were passing by, and they sent me in the direction of Isaiah Zagar’s house.  Not sure exactly what I wanted to say to him, I rang his doorbell.  His son answered the door and invited us in, up a stair case covered (walls, risers and ceiling) with colorful mosaic.  While I didn’t meet Isaiah himself that day, I have remembered his work well all these years, and it continues to inspire my outdoor mosaic designs.

This is part of what that abandoned lot, called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, looks like today:

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And part of his studio:

IMG_9916A few months ago I found out that he runs weekend workshops and I quickly signed up.  Last week I spent two wonderful days learning all the steps that Isaiah uses to make his murals and working with a team of volunteers and other students to mosaic a wall that was the length of three buildings.

While Isaiah’s figures and paintings are a very different style from mine and his process is far less carefully planned (and he doesn’t worry very much about winter proofing his mosaics!), I learned many things that I can apply to collaborative mosaic projects.  Without sharing any of his trade secrets, I’ll share a few of my big-picture (no pun intended) take-aways in case they’re also helpful to you:

  • The less constraints there are in terms of what goes where, the faster a group can cover a wall with tiles
  • Outlining, either with tiles themselves or with paint over the grout, can define forms in an otherwise chaotic background (Isaiah uses mirror and paint)
  • Starting with the largest pieces and moving down to smaller and smaller pieces to fill any remaining spaces can be a quick way to fill large areas
  • Interesting and colorful things on a huge wall are beautiful and don’t need to be in the “right” place
  • Grout colors stand up to the test of time much better indoors than outdoors

Here’s what we did on the first day of work:

 

And here’s our day of grouting:

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And a lesson in tile-painting:

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I wish that there had been some clever solutions to the problem of ice, sun and water damaging mosaics over time, but alas, it seems that the things I’ve been thinking about in terms of using limited materials for tesserae and adhesives and working on the right substrates are really the only approach to withstand New England winters.  I’m still on the look-out for more winterizing tips and tricks.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to find a location and an excuse to put some of my new cement mixing, tile creaking, mural designing and wall-grouting techniques into practice!

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